New Delhi/Bengaluru: Fear of a drop in antibody level six months after receiving the second vaccine dose, and rising concern about the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron, have pushed people in some parts of the country to go in for booster shots of available Covid vaccines. This, despite the absence of any third or booster dose recommendation from the government.
Commenting on the efficacy of a booster dose, Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University in Sonepat, said while there have been no reported side-effects of taking a third shot, there is also a lack of evidence to decide if it will do any good.
“Earlier, I would have said that it is important to vaccinate the entire population of the country first before giving booster shots. However, with the emergence of Omicron, it makes sense for people at high risk to receive a booster dose on priority, rather than waiting to vaccinate the entire population,” he added.
Delhi had reported 64 Omicron cases as of Thursday, the second highest in the country after Maharashtra, which recorded 65 cases. The country has reported a total of 236 Omicron cases.
Several countries, including the US and the UK have already recommended booster shots for their populations. However, health authorities in India have repeatedly reiterated that at present the focus is on getting the entire population vaccinated, since the World Health Organization too has advocated against booster shots at present.
In South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first identified, less than seven per cent of the population has been vaccinated. Global experts have also been appealing to western countries to allow the population in developing countries to get access to vaccine doses, before providing extra doses to their population.
In India, the demand for booster doses has been especially recorded from healthcare workers, many of whom are going in for a third vaccine dose from private hospitals.
The CoWin platform — through which registration for Covid vaccines in India is done — doesn’t currently allow bookings for a third dose. Nor are any vaccination certificates being given to those receiving booster shots at private facilities.
Rather, hospitals where such doses are being administered claimed people were receiving the third dose at their own risk, after consultation with their doctors, in the hope that once booster shots are allowed, they will be able to upload their details on CoWin and get a certificate for the already-received third dose.
‘Taking booster doses at personal risk’
As of Thursday morning, 97 per cent of people in Karnataka had received their first vaccine dose, while 75 per cent had received both shots.
With a spike in Covid-19 cases, especially the highly infectious Omicron variant, demand for booster shots has peaked in the state. The loudest voice in support of booster doses has come from healthcare workers.
According to state figures, as many as 31 cases of the Omicron variant had been detected in Karnataka as of Thursday.
Most doctors, nurses and hospital staff in Karnataka were vaccinated almost 8-10 months ago, between February and April. With Covid-19 cases spiking, healthcare professionals fear being infected, concerned that their immunity levels against the virus are sliding with each passing week.
“Since the government has not given clearance yet, we as a hospital do not recommend booster shots to anybody. But many people are taking it at their personal risk,” a source in the corporate team of a renowned Bengaluru hospital told ThePrint.
“Doctors, nurses and hospital staff too are taking a third vaccine shot to protect themselves. There is no record or certification for the third shot, but people, fearful of the virus, are taking it on an individual basis,” the source added.
While the percentage of those going in for booster doses is still minimal, those opting for it are mostly senior citizens, immunocompromised patients, persons with comorbidities and healthcare workers who worry about being exposed to infections.
“They discuss with their doctors about the pros and cons of taking the booster shot and decide on it. Updation of information, they hope, will happen once the CoWin portal allows registration of booster shots,” the source said.
A private company employee working in Bengaluru claimed that she had received her first vaccine dose similarly, even before she became eligible for the shots.
“Some hospitals in Bengaluru were administering shots reserved for ‘frontline workers’ to those who were yet to be eligible for vaccination. I approached one such hospital, and received the first dose the same day. The hospital was maintaining details of recipients in an unofficial register and uploaded it, with a changed date, on CoWin once registrations opened for those in my category and I then got my vaccination certificate,” she said.
The phenomenon is more common in private hospitals where vaccines are lying unused, said the source.
Another private hospital in Bengaluru has been receiving demands for booster shots not just from individuals, but also corporates, offices, multi-national companies etc. “We have been turning down people since the government hasn’t authorised the booster shot yet,” a source in this hospital’s communications department said.
Voicing the need for a booster shot, especially for healthcare workers who are more exposed to infection, Dr Ramana Rao, a Padma Shri awardee physician, told ThePrint: “With Covaxin and Covishield, we need another full dose to protect ourselves. It was only due to vaccines that healthcare professionals were safe during the second wave of Covid-19. Now we need another dose. If I could access a booster dose, I would be in queue too.”
‘Unused vaccines helping meet demand for booster doses’
Not just in Karnataka, the demand for booster doses has been noticed also in Mumbai.
“Vaccine has an expiry date. Currently there is a wastage of vaccine and that’s why a lot of booster doses are getting administered,” a doctor with a private hospital in Mumbai, who didn’t wish to be named, told ThePrint.
Some of those seeking a booster dose have also found a way around the CoWin registration issue.
A healthcare worker in Kolkata, who did not wish to be named, said that it was possible to get a third dose by linking a different photo ID and using a different mobile number for registration.
Inputs from Purva Chitnis and Sreyashi Dey
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)